The year is 1645, and as the Civil War continues to rage, Alice Hopkins is making her way from London to her hometown of Manningtree. Newly widowed and in the early stages of pregnancy, Alice has nothing to keep her in London. With her mother’s recent death, all that awaits her in Manningtree is her brother, Matthew. Accidentally burned by a careless wet nurse as a baby, Matthew was always a serious child. Although they were close as children, Matthew didn’t approve of his sister’s marriage and she fears what kind of welcome she will receive.
She discovers that her hometown has changed in the time she has been away. Matthew has risen in importance within the local community, and has become one of the leading voices in the detection of witches. Alice soon discovers that this prominence doesn’t just extend as far as the borders of the town, but into the rest of East Anglia.
As Matthew further investigates the women of Manningtree, so he also delves deeper into his own past. Having found his childhood wet nurse, he becomes convinced of her innocence in his accident. His blame shifts then to Bridget, a former servant, friend of his mother and mother in law to Alice. Alice herself is driven by a desire to protect her unborn child, her mother in law and her brother from the man that he has become.
It’s impossible to know what made a man like Matthew Hopkins act as he did. Beth Underdown paints him as a serial killer, a “killer of women,” which increases the discomfort and threat surrounding his vulnerable sister from who’s view point this story is told. I just wish there had been more of it. I found the first half of the book engaging, but felt that the second half fell a little flat and wanted there to be a little more depth to the characters. The same could be said for the secondary characters: the women who were accused, the female servants who assisted Hopkins- both willingly and unwillingly. I wanted to know more about them.
The dialogue and description plant us firmly in the 17th century, and works really well. I felt Alice’s loneliness and thought Underdown did a great job of showing us that aspect of her. She also shows us how evil can hide in plain sight, and how quickly it can become part of the zeitgeist. An important lesson in our modern world.